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FRI: AQUACULTURE RESEARCH+FISH KEEPING = HOPE

 by Thanassis Moschou

 Let me begin these pages with a triviality:

We all do whatever we can in order to maintain our livestock healthy and happy, we pay quite a lot for this, and we spend time and effort as well (or at least we are supposed to do so, but I opt to take it for granted…). Not many believe that this is an easy hobby, in fact for many hobbyists, beginners and advanced alike, aquarium keeping is ringing very often a certain word: disappointment. Of course, very often people go and buy a fishbowl; they overstock, overfeed, underfiltrate, undermaintain, and eventually end up with dead fish and “disappointment”. But there are quite a lot of cases where novices start with all good intentions, advice and effort, yet the result is nevertheless the same or similar. Well? Bad luck? You might say so… In many of these cases, the reason is that the livestock these fellows obtained was “poor”…

Perhaps a lot of aquarists are dealing with not so ordinary (or not easy to find and keep) fish, but please remember that most initiates enter the hobby by keeping the common mainstays: guppy and all the livebearing company, zebras, corys, barbs, and the commonest of the characids… The “most advanced”, rare to find in tanks fish are not reproduced and sold by the millions. But those mainstays do. And as I said before, the chance is that one starts on the hobby via those fishes. Have any of you had the chance to speak with a professional about the “quality” these fishes have in the wholesale market? Do you know just how many are ordered, how many arrive dead, how many die in the first couple of days and then how many die immediately afterwards, in the hands of the unlucky hobbyist? A lot more that should, is the answer for all… It is not a general phenomenon, of course, yet certain standard sources are steadily providing “low quality” fish. And the fact that they are not being excluded from the order lists of many importers (due to their cheaper prices of course) is annoying but true. There are excellent breeders and excellent shops. But what percentage of the aquarium fish market do they represent?

Let’s go one step further. Imagine you are a so-called advanced hobbyist, “disengaged” from guppies and in search of African or American cichlids, for example. How certain are you that the fish you found in your shop are what you are looking for? They look like they’re supposed to. What else could they be? Yes, hybrids… Disappointingly omnipresent… And besides hybrids, over-inbred, genetically inferior specimens are also commonly found for sale in the market. Sooner or later, an aquarist ends up as member in some club or a circle of fellow hobbyists, and many of his needs in livestock are covered from trusted friends that breed their stock themselves. Or, he/she learns about the few LFS owners with higher standards than the rest, and makes his choice. So this uncertainty of the quality of market fishes is not too worrying for him/her any more. But it is a usual and always present trap, which in my opinion and experience hinders many from pursuing the hobby further, and troubles the rest for ever. Any of you keeping “valuable” fish, that is rare or several years old (and therefore hard to find) adult specimens, stop and think: would you put fish from the market directly in your tanks? Quarantine is a rule that must be followed religiously, or you may have nasty surprises...

Let’s suppose that you agree (at least to some extend) with the above… What can be done? “Nothing” is a perfectly acceptable, tempting answer. Let me pause here for a moment, and tell you about a recent experience of mine that I think you’ll find interesting… And then we can see this livestock quality matter perhaps a bit differently. Most probably by the end you will have forgotten what we stated so far, as what follows is more like a kids story in the fashion of “Little Thanassis’ day at the FRI”, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you when it’s time!

Not much time ago, I had the chance to visit a place quite near where I live, but of which I was totally unaware: the Aquaculture Laboratory of the National Agricultural Research Foundation Fisheries Research Institute. I am very happy I did so, as I made good new friends and I learned many new things! I’d like to share my experience with you.

Stelios, a friend of mine and LFS owner, was about to visit FRI on a Saturday morning, and asked me if I was interested to come along. I was going to accept nevertheless, as anything relevant to fish interests me, but when he added that we would have the chance to see their aquarium aquacultured fish, as he was going to buy some for his shop, I was almost excited – and curious. You see, the word “national” has a certain “smell”, that hints away from all things fun and enjoyable (like tropical fish), especially so here in Greece.

Before I start on this, I’d like to give you some trivial data, so that you get an idea of what I am talking about. Quoting from the relevant sources:

 “The National Agricultural Research Foundation (N.AG.RE.F.), is the national body responsible for agricultural research and technology in Greece, functioning as a Legal Private Entity sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture”.

 “Fisheries Research Institute (F.R.I) is one of the five specialized research institutes of N.AG.RE.F, being responsible to conduct research and to promote technological development in the fishery sector”.

One of the FRI’s “laboratories” -or departments- is the Aquaculture one.

So we arrived at the Institute and met Fotis and Lefteris, the two biologists that work at the Aquacultures. The guys were very friendly from the first moment, and after some coffee and small talk, we started talking about more interesting and “fishy” matters. I soon felt at home. In no time the pet cat of the lab joined us and jumped on my lap. It was a very naughty, very inquisitive and very adorable cat, which always waited for opportunity to get in forbidden places or our steps.

The cat…

At first we asked to see their “ordinary” aquaculture activities. We started our tour from an area where a certain project was running for more than a year now, a locked chamber with a large glass window letting us look into a number of plastic tanks with marine fish. The easily recognizable sign of biohazard was too flashy on the locked door to pass unnoticed! “What is going on in here, guys?”

Fotis explained to us that this was a project that evaluates the possible transmission of Prions (Scrapie and BSE) to different fish species, namely seabream and seabass. The fish are kept in a strictly access-controlled environment and are fed with material containing the aforementioned factors. We’ll have to wait a couple of years for the results, which are of great interest for the fisheries business (and us, the consumers!) Quite impressive…

Above: Lefteris in the area of the “prion transition” project

In an outside area we saw the vats where the saltwater species are kept and bred. Sparus aurata, (gilthead seabream), Spondyliosoma cantharus (black seabream), Dicentrarchus labrax (the European seabass), Dentex caeruleostictus, in juvelile and adult sizes, were gathering next to us when we passed along their tanks. The lab is keeping these fish in order to have a stock ready in case there’s any request from other departments. The black seabream is a species not yet used in aquaculture, and they are expecting the population kept there to become ready for spawning in order to work on their breeding protocol

Above: Marine species vats

Above: Lefteris and Fotis tempting the female sturgeon with some pellets

The most unusual sight though (at least for me) was an adult female sturgeon, (Acipenser sp.), that was gracefully swimming around in circles in her (freshwater) vat. A really elegant animal, its swimming manner vaguely reminds that of a shark. She was kind enough to come in the surface and let Fotis hold her for a while (but not long enough for a decent photo…). Yet she does have a nasty habit, and that is to splash with her tail anybody trying to pet her!

After a few more tanks with marine species, it was time for something more interesting: The so called “ornamental” fish.

So we visited the enclosed area where they keep and raise livebearers. Large cylindrical aquaculture vats of 10.000 and 2.000 lts were all over the place, in which thousands of fish were swarming at our approach, as they thought it was feeding time. A familiar sight but in a much grander scale… Guppy, swordtails, platy, molly, in various sizes and all colourful and healthy. No sick, no deformed and no dead fish in sight. After Lefteris’ suggestion, I immersed my fingers in a vat with grown up mollies. The feeling of hundreds of little mouths nibbling at your skin is something you should try yourself!

Above: The livebearers keeping and raising vats.

Above: Xiphophorus helleri

Apart from such “mass produced” species, they are also getting into Pterophyllum scalare, Colisa lalia, Geophagus brasiliensis, Corydoras aeneus, Corydoras panda, Puntius titteya (the cherry barb), Helostoma temminckii, Trichogaster trichopterus Trichogaster pectoralis, Thayeria boehlkei. These species are kept in glass aquariums, the parents at least. There were fry from Colisa, Pterophyllum, Geophagus, Puntius and Corydoras sp. at the moment. We were lucky enough to witness a pair of marble angelfish to spawn in their tank. The Pterophyllum and Geophagus fry were many weeks old, and seeing such beautiful fish in large schools is quite a sight alright, the Colisa ones though were only a few days old, and were hardly seen. I must confess that it was the first time I saw such fry. I also had the chance to see brachydanio fry that hatched that same day, a sight that needs acute eye! These babies were tiny and thread like, erratically wiggling and trying for the surface to fill their swim bladders with air. All the fry are raised with live food of course, mostly nematode, rotifers and ostracoda

Above: Marble angels

While we were touring the tanks, the same question that must have occurred to you sprang to my mind, so I asked: “What exactly are you doing with tropicals? What is the purpose that you breed these fish?” Thus I learned from Fotis and Lefteris that they are working on a project with a long name: “the development of a model for cultivation of ornamental fishes in closed systems with biological treatment of the water”, i.e. a project in which they are aiming to develop strategies and protocols for breeding as many as possible aquarium species, in order to help kick-start a new branch of aquaculture in Greece, the one of aquarium fish. They believe that Greece is particularly suitable for cultivation of tropical fish, and the substantial experience from regular aquaculture is a major plus.  For this project, the laboratory is working with the help of the Genetics Lab and Animal Physiology Lab of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. This is because there is also a part of the project that has to do with the genetic control of the aquacultured species, i.e. to verify the “purity” of the species in question

Above: Guppies

Along with the fish breeding, there is the part of the project that deals with the live food. Its purpose is to equip future aquaculture facilities with knowledge and techniques about raising the live food they’re going to need in breeding their tropicals. They are cultivating all the live foods required to sustain the fry, as they are especially experienced in this because of the “ordinary” aquaculture procedures. Standard live foods they grow are trochozoa, nematode, daphnia, oligochaete and ostracoda, as well as “greenwater”, i.e. certain kinds of phytoplankton.

Above: Phytoplankton cultivation

I had the chance to watch cultures of nematodes (also known in the hobby as “microworms”) under laboratory microscope and stereoscope. I must confess that it makes you think a bit, watching vast populations of animals moving, interacting, struggling, living, in an area much smaller than your little fingernail! Animals indeed, as they have nervous, digestive and reproductive system, and all this in less than 1000 cells and a lifespan of 27 days… I even saw a female specimen carrying her babies! I had no previous experience with this kind of animals before. What I found most interesting, as I am not at all familiar with live food cultures, was that although the culture was in a medium not so pleasant in sight (a mixture of peat and oatmeal-food for the worms) the animals themselves are crawling up the container’s walls and are gathered on the cover, so they are easily and totally dirt-free collected. “Why are they doing this?” “Who knows!” was the answer. Yet there they were, resembling some kind of thick and slightly yellowish milk, ready to be collected and fed to the hungry, tiny fry. Another new experience for me was the room where they are cultivating phytoplankton. Tall vats full with green water were bubbling with airstones, and small, laboratory vessels were put under light, containing various FW and SW phytoplankton cultures, food for the zooplankton live food they also raise.

Above: Phytoplankton cultivation. The triumph of DIY.

Above: Healthy little animals

Perhaps this description is getting a bit too extensive, but you get the picture: I was feeling like Alice in Wonderland, surrounded with fish, tanks (and biologists!)…

Now it was time for some more coffee and chat…

First of all, we learned that every part of the “ornamental fish project” we saw was self-financed. The project is still not approved (hopefully it will be), yet the people of the Aquaculture Dept. decided to carry on with it. Since the legal status of NAGREF permits it, they are selling the fish they produce in order to sustain the program till it gets financed from the state. They explained that at the beginning of the project, they faced big problems with the quality of the breeders they got from the market. Especially trying to breed the livebearers, they had problems like: high numbers of deformed fry, reduced growth, increased mortality in larval stages, limited reproductive capacity etc. They concluded that for the bulk of these symptoms responsible are:

-                   The conditions of shipping and maintaining the fish during commerce

-                   The strong pharmaceutical treatment of fish at the breeding units

-                   The genetic deterioration of the species in culture

-                   The various mistakes while acclimatizing the fish upon their arrival at retailers

-                   The possible intentional effort to reduce the reproductive potential of the product fish at the breeding units (!)

After some initial batches, they are proud of the fish they are able to produce, especially the livebearers that are the bulk of their production. They are especially proud of their swordtails! They have sold around 40.000 fishes till now, and they claim that each and every one sold was checked before leaving the lab! Fotis says that the mortality rate of the fish they raise and sell is practically zero. He has conducted a test, where he put 170 grown up guppies in a shipping bag, with 3.5 lts of water and 50-50% air-oxygen, the standard mixture they use. He let it closed for 20 hours, and then released the fish in a check tank. Not a single specimen died within the next weeks. “Try and do this with fish from the market”, he says…

“We claim that we re-opened the local livebearer market…” says Lefteris. “Our fish are vibrant, large and healthy! Hobbyists buy them and are happy with them.” “We are asking only for one thing from the shop-owners we sell to, not to put our fish together with the rest of their fish”, says Fotis. “You cannot imagine the number of pathogens we have traced on fish from the aquarium market! As long as they keep our fish out of the tanks they keep the rest, we guarantee for each one of them!”

 “We had the chance to stumble on quite a few surprises, such as improvements in fry raising and live food cultivation, or effective non-pharmaceutical treatment of diseases that is not yet described, but we do not have the time or the funds to follow all these threads”, says Lefteris. We hope that some day we’ll manage to go on with such projects.

They both agree that they are not very happy with the fact that they interact directly with the market, and they wait for the day their project gets approval and funds, so they may work in a larger and more complete scale on it. For the moment, they would like to expand the range of species they breed as much as they can. “Our biggest problem with this is the difficulty to get proper breeders. As long as we know that we are working with the right stuff, we can try and breed almost anything. Don’t forget our experience in developing breeding protocols for many marine and FW species…”. We discussed a bit on the possibility that they also try to breed certain marine aquarium species, such as clowns, dottybacks and cardinals for example. “Yes, it is something we think of, and not only these, but also other marines, as well as rare and hard to breed FW species. But our resources are rather limited for the moment. Our experience from other –local- marines is such that we are sure we can work things out with tropical marine fish as well…” “How’s that?” I asked Lefteris…

“Well, let me say this with a parable… I like to think of the various ecosystems as orchestras of music. The “stable” zoogeographical zones such as the tropical or the arctic are like an orchestra playing soft, harmonious music – lets say classical music. The temperate ecosystems are a different story. Everything is fluctuating vigorously. We may resemble this with a jazz band. The animals that live in such environments are adapted to an always swinging environment. Let’s take the seabream, Sparus aurata, for example. It spawns at 16oC. But this alone means nothing. It spawns in a year-round cycle, and while the temperature drops, as it reaches the 16oC mark. But if you are raising the fish in an artificial environment, in a controlled temp of let’s say 19-20 oC (which is better for fattening the fish), and bring the temp down to 16 when you want to trigger the spawning, problems occur: you can’t possibly know that the fish gonads are as developed as they should – most probably they are either less or more ripe than needed. So you get fry with many problems, deformed, dying or not healthy or growing… And this is a common mistake in aquaculture installations. See now? Do you think that playing jazz is easy? You have to follow the cycle fish organism is adapted to in order to have a proper gonad development. Compare this with a tropical bream, which lives in a constant environment. That’s a reason why tropicals spawn more times in a year. That’s also a reason why tropical ecosystems are much more sensitive in “contamination” with man-introduced species than temperate ones. I’ll use my parable once more: a note more or less in a jazz piece will do small harm; its effect will “die off” quickly. But it will play havoc in a classical music part. For example, we introduce Gambusia in our temperate waters. They do not do any harm, as the winter time settles things by killing most specimens. There’s no need to tell you of examples of tropical ecosystems blown out by introducing “harmless” species… To make a long story short, that’s another reason why the aquarium fish are tropical species. They are more beautiful of course, but they are also living in conditions closely resembling our homes, and they are easier to raise and breed. The biology and life cycles of animals that live in constant, stable condition are simply easier to duplicate.”

Come on, little fishies!

It was now time to pack the fish Stelios wanted to buy, and we started netting and putting the fish (livebearers, angelfish and corys) in their bags. I witnessed myself the procedure they follow for selecting and packing the fish, and I assure you it was nothing like “commerce”. I saw Lefteris discarding a couple of guppies, and asked him why. “They were not colourful enough” was the answer! The fish were handpicked - literally. Even for a trip of one hour they packed the fish with oxygen+air mixture. I may sound like advertising them, yet even the prices were much better than those of the wholesale market – even as their fish are top quality and 100% healthy. I asked about their price policy. “We watch the market and try to be a bit lower than average… We’re not trying to maximize our profits, just to stay alive. Remember, all we managed till now is only self-financed. As long as we work like this, we hope that our profits are such that allow us to get better. An when we do get our project approved, we will be working in smaller numbers, getting protocols for more and more species, and providing good quality parents for the local aquaculture market.”

We went back in the culture vats. Fotis was making a last feed and a last check for the day, as Lefteris and me went to the mollies vat and enjoyed a last dip of our fingers in the water and the thousands of nibbles of the fishies… a habit that is easy to turn into addiction! It was really nice to stand there, fondling the mollies and talking about a favourite subject – fish and fish keeping… The things I learned were so many and so diverse, that I felt almost dizzy and intoxicated. DIY solutions and tricks, as the people there were employing dozens of such solutions for a long time. A wealth of info on subjects like fish breeding, fry raising, biology, ecology and evolution. And so many other things I forget about…

I became a regular visitor of the FRI since then, and I am always enjoying my visits and expanding my knowledge…

And now I will remind you of the things we talked about in the beginning. The general quality of the aquarium market fish and what can be done to improve it. I am not such a naïve person to believe that the FRI project might affect the local market. And I am aware that talking about a small scale facility with proper scientific personnel, experience and equipment is one thing, and an enterprise with the purpose to make money is another. Yet I am sure that none is going to lose from the FRI project – except from the bad commerce and hawk retailers. Who knows, maybe local hobbyists can find ways to join their efforts with the people at aquacultures lab of FRI and get an unexpected ally in their pursue of a better hobby. And “better hobby” here means most of all better fish, more knowledge, and better tactics. Maybe the FRI is a national foundation, but it’s not too “national” after all!

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